I'm a confirmed believer in the church of video games, a sect whose faith has been rewarded over the past decade, as games have sailed easily over the hurdles that have been placed in front of them by the apostates. No one really disputes anymore that games can make us cry, make us laugh, teach our children, train our soldiers, or advance political arguments. Is there anything games can't do?
For the first time in memory, I'm wondering if there's a limit. A recent email from a listener to my podcast, Shall We Play a Game?, posed this question: "Assume that a video game franchise is going to be the founding document of a major world religion. What series do you think would be best suited to the task?" My co-host, JJ Sutherland, and I discussed the matter in detail on this podcast (starting at about the 28:45 mark), but here's my too-long-didn't-listen answer: None of them.
More often than not, video games are about conflict and power, or about agency and self-fulfillment, rather than selflessness and love. More plausibly, the listener asked this question: "Do you think that interactive media is up to the task of imparting spiritual and moral themes, as well as a sense of religious community, that people could take seriously in their real lives? Why or why not?"
Yes, of course I think interactive media are up to that task. Yet it's striking how rarely video games -- they're more than 50 years old now -- have tried to engage with religious themes, especially for a medium so often fascinated by questions of good and evil, and the end of days.
The only game that brought me to a feeling that even approximates the sublimity of a religious awakening or a spiritual transformation is thatgamecompany's Journey. And I'm capable of seeing transcendent beauty in Mad Max: Fury Road.
JJ, my co-host, went with Planescape: Torment as a game that contains moral lessons that might be used for religious instruction. A listener emailed and suggested Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar as the video game equivalent of a religious text. "The whole point of the game is not obliterating enemies, but living a life based on the 'eight virtues' -- honesty, compassion, valor, justice, sacrifice, honour, spirituality, and humility," he wrote. (We discussed his email on this episode, at about the 39:30 mark.) On our newest podcast episode, we read an email from M. Joshua Cauller, who writes for the website Gamechurch, about that website's annual lists of Games That Jesus Loves.
To me, the original questioner is not looking for a video game that merely presents instruction on how to lead the good life. Rather, he wants -- or maybe I want -- a game that creates the ineffable feeling of openness and connection that people can feel from church, from nature, from art.
The sensation of "flow" created by the best puzzle games may be the closest analogue, the feeling of disappearing into a game and becoming one with it. Ian Bogost, the game designer and critic, writes in his forthcoming book, How to Talk About Video Games, that abstract puzzle games like Drop7, Orbital, and Tetris connect players to the "mathematical sublime."
Is Tetris the closest video games have come to touching the face of God? It does seem to bring players into contact with the infinite. As Bogost writes:
"The sublime is just the opposite of cold formalism: a feeling of overwhelm, of vastness, of abundance. The sublime helps us see the limits of our own reason, showing us the instability and immensity of the world. … We look for masterpieces in games by comparing them with familiar works of representational art, like film, painting, and literature. But the sublime is found elsewhere: in architecture, in nature, in weather."
Illustration by Sam Woolley